The front cover of Peter Hennessy’s brilliant Never Again, a study of Britain under the Attlee governments (from which much of what follows is drawn), gives a photograph of Gunner Hector Morgan returning home, having been a POW in Singapore, to his wife and son and their new prefab, in south London’s Tulse Hill, in 1945. Between 1945 and 1949, over 150,000 prefabricated housing units were built. These prefabs were a short term solution to a problem that was in part a product of war, but in truth a problem of far longer standing: a shortage of housing, the terrible state of much of the housing there was, and the expectation that it was a problem that the government had to take the lead in solving.
That the state could, even should, intervene to deal with bad housing and related issues was a long-established principle by 1945. The first legislation to enable slum clearance came in the 1870s. Philanthropy also pointed a way forward: the likes of the Peabody Trust sought to provide blocks of flats for working class tenants, especially London, in the belief that better housing would enable them to lead better lives.
Above, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, unveiling a plaque in 1962, celebrating the centenary of Peabody’s Blackfriars estate; below, the Hammersmith estate opened in 1962.
The Garden City movement saw the building of Letchworth, in 1903.
This was followed by Welwyn Garden City, in 1920: both were the prototypes of the post-war New Towns.
The Garden City movement was also notable for two features which would profoundly influence Nye Bevan. In 1918, under the auspices of the Lloyd George coalition, and strongly influenced by Raymond Unwin (the architect and planner of Letchworth), commissioned the Tudor Walters report, which was made law by Christopher Addison (below, who was made a Labour peer in 1945, and served in Attlee’s cabinet). Addison’s Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 established three important principles: local authorities being given the power to build, the treasury subsidy for each house and the Garden City style ‘council cottage’ (minimum standards of build, and a quasi-rural style of house). Though the programme was curtailed by the Geddes Axe, it was subsequently revived by the Wheatley Act of 1924, and the Greenwood Act of 1930.
With the boom in private house building, especially in the ‘thirties, Britain had some four million more houses in 1939 than it had in 1919. And, pretty much without exception, each one of those houses meant a better life for each of the four million people and families who live in them, most of all for the 370,000 built as part of slum clearance schemes. In short, the principle that the state could intervene to build, and plan, and that this would make people’s lives better was firmly established, as was the notion that the future for working class people was the council house rather than the private landlord (how times have changed). For Labour, especially, it was one of the hallmarks of socialism and reform. It was also an issue which had substantial electoral appeal.
In Peter Hennessy’s words, in 1945, Labour ‘promised the earth’. Arguably, they needed to. During the war, some 200,000 houses were destroyed, and another 250,000 were left uninhabitable; another 250,000 were badly damaged. The Churchill coalition had envisaged the building of some 750,000 new houses after the war. During the election, Ernest Bevin trumped that, promising ‘five million homes in quick time’.
It was an unrealistic promise. Domestically produced steel and timber were scarce, and imports were restricted. Housing was in the remit of the Ministry of Health, and Nye Bevan had an NHS to create. Bevan looked to local authorities to initiate the building, and some were more willing than others (something Addison was to point out to Attlee). What Attlee should have done, and later did, was to create a new ministry: first a ministry of Town and Country Planning, then a Ministry of Housing a and Local Government. Bevan was also not prepared to sacrifice quality for quantity: like Unwin, he held to the quasi-rural ideal and increased the minimum size and quality of public housing. Below, Bevan can be seen visiting new council housing in Elstree, Hertfordshire.
The most important innovation came not from Bevan, but from Sir Lewis Silkin, and the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning. Those were the new towns. Here’s Charley!
In the life-time of the Labour government, at least as much was achieved by shorter-term fixes. In 1945 itself, some 600,000 dwellings were repaired and made habitable; another 70,000 were requisitioned by local authorities using wartime powers that were still in force? And then there were the prefabs: one opening here in Bristol.
In 1944, the coalition government had come up with the design, and in 1945 now redundant aircraft production factories were given over to the manufacture of the metallic frames needed for them. Some, Bevan included, were dubious. Others evangelistic, like this film.
Rather than being ‘rabbit hutches’ as Bevan dismissed them, they proved enduringly popular: in 2008, there were still 300 being lived in in Bristol, 38 by their original tenants. Their demolition met with protests, and nostalgia, for the homes themselves and the communities they created.
Nonetheless, housing shortages were a serious issue. 1946 saw a wave of squatters, especially in London, led by Communist activists: some 50,000 people lived illegally, but unmolested, in empty military bases. In 1947, Bevan’s jousting programme fell victim to spending cuts, the fate had befallen Addison in 1921. It was perhaps no accident that the Conservatives would famously promise, in 1951, 300,000 houses per annum. Macmillan was playing in response to a perceived weakness the Attlee government. But, don’t forget those prefabs.